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by William H. Benson

April 19, 2006

     Years ago I found a job working for a contractor who had a gift of expressing his thoughts in precise blue-collar language. For example, when he described a person he thought incredibly smart, he would say, “He’s forgotten more than most people ever learned.” And for people he considered ignorant, he delivered his choicer epithets.

     His connection between the reception of information, his formulated judgment of other people’s ideas or behavior, and his voiced opinion was immediate, as are most people’s. In an instant he connected thoughts.

      Five and a half years ago, the author and historian William Manchester announced that at age 79 he would not complete the third volume of The Last Lion, his biography of Winston Churchill. He said, “I can’t put things together. I can’t make the connections.”

     A writer’s greatest fear is the loss of the ability to connect ideas, for writers depend on their ability to draw lines from one dot to another, from one idea to another, to make those connections out of thin air, or out of no air.

  1. L. Mencken suffered a stroke late in life and suddenly could no longer read nor write. He said that the date of the stroke was the day that he had died. The connections he had depended upon to write his columns and books had short-circuited.

     Scientists have determined that intelligence and skill and prowess is regulated by the depth of interaction between the nerve fibers and the myelin which covers those fibers. Nerve fibers act like switches, instantaneous, but then why does it take so long to learn a set of complex skills?

     Douglas Fields, a lab director at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, explained, “Everything neurons do, they do pretty quickly; it happens with the flick of a switch. But flicking switches is not how we learn a lot of things. Getting good at piano or chess or baseball takes a lot of time, and that’s what myelin is good at.” As the myelin thickens, the better it insulates, and the faster the signals travel.

     Of memory St. Augustine said, “All these things the great recesses, the hidden and unknown caverns of memory receive and store, to be retrieved and brought forth when needed, each entering by its own gate. Yet, the thing themselves do not enter, but only the images of the things perceived are there, ready to be recalled in thought. But how these images are formed, who can tell?”

     “Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great, O my God; a large and boundless chamber! Who has ever sounded the depths of it?”

     The brain’s architecture includes this unlimited memory supply, but also the ability to believe, to judge, to discern who and what to trust, and to accept without question a set of religious beliefs. Some believe quickly; others not at all.

     Recently, three neo-atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennet—have argued that “religion is nothing more than a useless and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident.” And yet certain scientists disagree, arguing instead that “religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during human history. Religious belief permeates all human cultures throughout all human history.” These scientists are convinced that religious belief was a necessary ingredient for our specie’s survival.

     Walter Isaacson has just written a new biography on Albert Einstein. At age 12 he decided that religion was propaganda. “It was a crushing impression,” he later wrote. In other words, his connection with religion failed. But he developed connections with other things. For example, he wondered what light would look like if you rode beside a light beam, and so his intellect led him to the special theory of relativity.

     Einstein was one individual who did forget more than most people ever learn, and Isaac Newton was another. It was said that he would awaken in the morning but then sit on the edge of his bed for hours because a storm of ideas was bombarding his mind. The connections were literally bouncing off each other.